Central Texas fentanyl dealer sentenced to 78 months in federal prison

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A federal judge sentenced Manuel Ramon Martinez, of Austin, to 78 months in federal prison Friday for possession and intent to distribute fentanyl. Martinez will be booked into prison in January and will not leave until at least 2028, according to federal records and his defense attorney.

Federal and local law enforcement arrested Martinez, 31, in February following a search of his home that netted roughly 1,120 pills laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Police also found two semi-automatic rifles, two handguns and more than $19,000 in cash, according to a federal complaint. U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel oversaw Martinez’s case.

The federal complaint detailing Martinez’s arrest does not tie him directly to any deaths caused by fentanyl, but it does note illegal prescription pills and laced pills like the ones found in his apartment killed 17 people in Austin and surrounding cities between March 2020 and January 2021.

Fentanyl deaths have skyrocketed in the past three years in Central Texas and throughout the state and country. The mounting death toll has caught the attention of state and federal leaders, who have increased penalties for dealing the drug and vowed to intercept more of it entering the U.S.

Cedar Park Police, including Sgt. Justin Miller, worked with federal agents to arrest Martinez. Police and federal agents surveilled Martinez for months prior to his arrest. The officers used an informant to buy oxycodone pills from Martinez on three separate occasions. Police monitored the purchases, tested the pills and found they contained fentanyl, according to a federal complaint.

Miller said his department would work with federal law enforcement to find people who “continue to poison the streets.”

“Taking this fentanyl supplier, as well as his deadly drugs and guns, off of the street, there is no doubt lives were spared from overdose or death,” Miller said in an email to KXAN. “The seriousness shown by the Federal Courts will hopefully deter those that are currently selling and prevent new distributors from engaging in this deadly business.”

In a comment to KXAN, Martinez’s lawyer, George Lobb, contrasted the severity of Martinez’s sentence with the leniency given to Matthew Michanowicz, a 53-year-old man who left a bag of homemade bombs that failed to detonate at a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Pittsburgh. Michanowicz pleaded guilty to possession of an unregistered destructive device, and a federal judge sentenced him on Dec. 7 to six months of house arrest, three years of probation and time served, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“Instead of probation, Manuel Martinez faces prison. The federal government’s failed war on drugs (aka war on the poor and disenfranchised) wastes resources that could be used to PREVENT real crime,” Lobb said. “Perhaps if Manuel Martinez had sold pills to BLM protestors, the feds would’ve agreed to a light probation sentence, or even dismissal.”

State effort to stop fentanyl deaths

State leaders have trained their sites on fentanyl. In July, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a new law increasing penalties for making or selling the drug. State law now prescribes a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of life in prison for manufacture or delivery of 4-200 grams of fentanyl. That penalty goes up to minimum of 15 years for 200-400 grams and to a minimum of 20 years for more than 400 grams, according to Abbott’s office.  Those penalty changes only affect cases in state court. Martinez’s case was handled in federal court, where judges use different sentencing guidelines.

Narcan for law enforcement

State and local officials have also pushed to get Narcan, a lifesaving opioid overdose reversal drug, in the hands of law enforcement. Narcan is a brand name typically sold in nasal spray form; it is also commonly called naloxone, the drug’s generic name.

KXAN previously reported on a 2019 law authored by State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, to fund Narcan for law enforcement. The law, which created the “Opioid Antagonist Grant Program,” had a limited impact. All $500,000 appropriated for the grant program was spent on four departments statewide, with 99% of the funds going to law enforcement in the Houston area, where Huffman’s senate district is located. The grant program will cease to exist in fiscal year 2022-23, according to Abbott’s office.

Abbott’s office said Narcan grants for law enforcement can still be made through the Criminal Justice Grant Program, but as of late August no departments had applied for fiscal year 2022.

Law enforcement offices have equipped officers without the help of those state grants. All Cedar Park Police patrol officers have carried Narcan since 2018, according to a department spokesperson. The Austin Police Department made Narcan available to its officers in October.

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